Surgical strikes
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Moeed Pirzada |

As I write these lines, in the early hours of 3rd October 2016, initial reports are pouring in of ‘yet another fidayeen attack against a garrison’ this time in Baramula, not far from Srinagar. Though its only logical to wonder how all these ‘terrorists’ who remained quiet and inactive for almost 80 days since the killing of Burhan Wani on 9th July have suddenly become ‘over-active’ – despite an almost continuous curfew for 80 plus days – to coincide with the requirements of ‘Doval Doctrine’ but once nationalistic fervor is stoked such critical questions are never addressed. Its thus increasingly important that Pakistanis attempt to make sense of what India’s Hindutva leadership is trying to achieve – and what may follow?

In the evening of 29th September as I pulled my car into Islamabad’s diplomatic area from Kashmir road, I tried to call him the last time. I was heading towards the German Embassy, it was German National Day. But I knew today they won’t be talking of Angela Merkel’s brave immigration policy, but something else: Did India really conduct surgical strikes into Pakistan?

Fortunately this time, I was able to get him on line. It was almost 8pm, and I had parked outside the German Embassy. I was speaking with Pakistan’s DG ISPR, Gen. Asim Bajwa. By then, I already knew most facts: Indian claims of surgical strikes, and Pakistani surprise and rejection of what it called ‘Firing across LOC’ or a ‘deliberate illusion’. I was not interested in these claims and counter claims. I wanted to know something different. I heard, Gen. Ranbir Singh, Indian DGMO, in fact I played the video several times – at the specific point, where he mentioned the ‘surgical strikes’.Video Link of Gen. Ranbir’s Press Briefing on Surgical Strikes and then also intrigued most by saying that ‘we don’t have any plans for further continuing ‘or in simple words: “no more strikes” will be done. Almost saying that: ‘please! accept this, lets be over with it’. Something that soon became the official line.Military Action a Message to Pakistan: Escalation Unlikely, Economic Times Also read this intriguing story by investigative journalist: Ansar Abbassi. India Contacts Pakistan to avoid escalation of tension

We had previously heard Gen. Ranbir’s press briefing after ‘Uri’ when he made the surprising claim that the weapons found on terrorists had Pakistani markings. His latest video was available on the Indian newspaper sites. He had claimed that ‘Indian Army has conducted surgical strikes’ and that I informed the Pakistani DGMO of ‘our actions’. Full Text of Indian DGMO, Gen. Ranbir Singh’s Press Conference

I now wanted to know, from Pakistani DG ISPR, what precisely he (Gen. Ranbir) said to the Pakistani DGMO when they spoke. “Oh! they keep calling each other in routine; he told him that last night we suspected militants were trying to cross over from across the LOC and we fired to repulse them..” ..that’s it? nothing else? I asked. “Yes, it was brief, it was routine, information update, request for cooperation & coordination..” I then asked: He did not mention that we crossed over into the Pakistani territory and killed 38 or 40 militants? …”No, nothing of the sort. We discovered all these claims…Surgical strikes and all that…only after the media talk….” What about Indian dead bodies? do we have any idea of their losses? “No, we understand there must definitely be some losses, on their side, since we fired very heavy in response, but we have no idea at this stage..”

Indian DGMO had not given any details. He had only mentioned that Indian Army had made ‘Surgical Strikes’ Full Text of Indian DGMO Gen. Ranbir’s Press Conference. What these ‘Surgical Strikes’ meant, he never explained. But ‘Surgical Strikes’ have a definite connotation in military literature. Israel conducted famous ‘Operation Opera’  35 Years later Israeli Pilots remember details of Operation Opera a surprise surgical strike, in June 1981, against Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak, and later against “Al Kibar” Syrian nuclear facilities in 2007. US conducts all kinds of surgical strikes, against defined targets, with clear objectives, all across the world.

Indians compare themselves with United States. It may look rather strange to casual observers but to ‘India watchers’ like myself it is obvious that Indians – obsessed with the idea of greatness, of being a ‘big power’, the new muscular kid on the corner – continuously compare themselves with the United States; they want to do things the way United States can do. Indian media and political debates exhibit a deep fascination, almost morbid fascination, for ‘Surgical Strikes’. Article keeping on appearing that demand that India should deal with Pakistan the way United States does or Israel does with Palestinians. For instance: Why India can not do a Gaza on Pakistan?

Immediately after the US raid to kill OBL, an argument was repeatedly heard: “If US can do it, then why cannot we do it?”. Why can’t India do a US to the likes of Dawood & Hafiz Saeed?  The very fact that Bollywood has already made movies of Indian Intelligence conducing operations to abduct or kill Dawood or Hafiz Saeed reveals a deep emotional desire to avenge and show power. But at the same time newspapers are full of articles where ‘Surgical Strikes’ are mentioned as an option, but then a kind of disappointment is expressed for these options are not being exercised or cannot be exercised for reasons of lack of precise actionable intelligence, logistic issues, Pakistani abilities, challenge of successful exit, risks of war, international reaction etc. Six Reasons Why Military Action Against Pakistan is not an option for India? For the past several years, a strong public desire and a political ambition exists for ‘strikes inside Pakistan’ as was revealed by Pakistan’s ex-foreign minister, Mehmood Raza Kasuri, that such attacks were contemplated after the Mumbai attacks Kasuri claims India had planned air strikes after Mumbai. Yet, despite this strong desire, Indian and  international experts have always expressed skepticism about Indian capabilities like this analysis in international publication Diplomat. Is India Capable of Surgical Strikes inside Pakistani Controlled Kashmir?

And then getting away with Surgical strikes against an enemy is also a function of your overall political clout and global position – not merely your technical capacities. But reversing the argument: being able to carry out such ‘surgical strikes’ will then automatically give India that global position. Summing up: word ‘Surgical Strikes against Pakistan’ is a word that gives most contemporary Indians an ‘erotic’ and ‘orgasmic experience’; if they can really manage these then it will be a sign of India being “masculine” of India’s manhood and being “really powerful like the United States”. Recently, immediately after the “Uri Attack” noted Pakistani Security Expert and Head of Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS) Imtiaz Gul, revealed that immediately after Mumbai Attacks, US senators – like Senator McCain – had brought an Indian proposal that India be allowed, by Pakistan, to conduct ‘Surgical Strikes’ in some desolate land so that Indian Public can be satisfied. So the fantasy of ‘Surgical Strikes’ is deep in Indian psyche, something which Narendra Modi has now fulfilled; it will be interesting to read this piece from Imtiaz Gul, now: Surgical Strikes Post Uri? Imtiaz Gul, The Express Tribune

It is in this context that we can understand what Modi government was now trying to achieve in Kashmir at LOC. While Indian DGMO claimed ‘Surgical Strikes’ but never explained, never gave details from his official podium, very interesting, colorful and impressive details quickly emerged or were leaked into the Indian papers – Details that painted a picture but details that carried element of plausible deniability for being media speculations. Details claimed that ‘Choppers (a familiar American term) were used, 38 terrorists were killed; all raiding parties that penetrated deep – from 500 meters to 2 kilometers into the Pakistani territory  returned safely. 4 Hours, Choppers & 38 Kills, India avenges the Uri Attack.

More and somewhat different details emerged in other publications; Indian commandos penetrated across 250 Kilometers of LOC, they were dropped by helicopters at the LOC, they then penetrated deep into the Pakistani territory. Many wonder: why dropped via helicopters when they had to penetrate on foot? And we learn that all returned safely after the necessary killing and destruction of all ‘seven terrorist launching pads’- Straight from the script of “Black Hawk Down”- No real engagement took place with Pakistani troops in world’s most militarized area – Kashmir border – But other news reports informed that Indians had smartly used the helicopter flights to Uri to fool and distract Pakistanis  For Surgical Strikes, Helicopters, Heavy Firing used to distract Pakistanis .

And off-course: no accidents. We remember how Americans lost one of their Black Hawk Stealth helicopters, for technical reasons, during their famous raid to kill OBL in Abottabad, it was allegedly later examined by Chinese to learn ‘stealth technology’ as discussed in Guardian report. Pakistan Let China Examine Helicopter used in Bin Laden Raid, says US, The Guardian. Such special operations need precision and timing and are always fraught with the danger of accidents. American units lost their ‘Black Hawk’ for purely technical reasons, though there was no resistance and no fire fight – and if you give a tiny-weeny bit of credence to the interesting stuff which Samuel Hersh subsequently published, then no ‘real hostility’ and perhaps lots of cooperation on ground. Killing of Osama Bin Laden, Samuel Hersh, London Review of Books. But Indians, unlike Americans in OBL raid, apparently were attacking ‘dangerous militants’ and their ‘supporters’ (DGMO’s reference towards Pakistan Army) in an area controlled by a proper hostile army, so the probability of accidents and mishaps was far more. Super human or Just lucky?

And unlike the Americans who brought back a body, produced computer software for analysis and provided minute by minute details of the operation, Indian commandos decided not to bring back any body out of the 38 militants, or even the videos or images of the targets destroyed or neutralized.  Prominent Pakistani columnist, and defense analyst, Ejaz Haider spent time in finding out what really happened in the intervening night of 28th and 29th September and his information, his analysis, published in Newsweek, is worth reading.  After the Surgical Strikes, Ejaz Haider, Newsweek

But lets rewind, lets come back; in the evening of 29th, it was beautiful inside the German Embassy – and as I expected there was lots of interest in ‘Surgical Strikes’. Many diplomats were convinced and worried that India had really crossed the threshold, no one was sure what really happened, but they argued: something must have happened; how can Indian government and military make such claims? The only people who outrightly suspected the ‘Story of Surgical Strikes’ were a few western military attaches whom I met. “Its not possible this way, area is heavily militarized, Indian Army has not given any details, how? what kind of force? equipment? how they got out? where are the bodies of those they killed?” And then I came across a western correspondent who said: “why no news from Azad Kashmir?, why you must believe what ISPR is telling you? why not send reporters? ask people…ISPR may be hiding, lying…”

I left the German embassy a bit confused, bewildered and puzzled. I started thinking what if ISPR is indeed lying? denying Indian strikes or penetration only to hide their embarrassment? I decided to do my own little bit of research. I started calling the reporters, all across Azad Kashmir. Everyone I spoke with told me more or less the same, ‘Heavy firing across LOC, 4-5 hours, no surgical strikes, nothing of the sort’. But none of them was present in any of the border villages, or towns between the nights of 28th and 29th. So all of them had what you call in law, ‘secondary information’; information derived from the accounts of others; derived narrative. So what should I do? How to reach out to the common men of the villages perched all across LOC? After a bit of head scratching I thought of Facebook; I knew from my ‘FB Dashboard’ that I have many all across Azad Kashmir that follow me. I wrote a request to all those in the border villages, that anyone who was in the border villages where Indian Army did firing should send me his cell no or email me and I will speak. Facebook Page, Moeed Pirzada, 30th Sept.

Response was incredible. I started to get Names and cell no’s along with village details. I started calling, everyone I spoke with, introduced me to more of his family and friends in the same or nearby village. I realized, being a familiar face and name from national tv, like Dunya News, is so helpful in terms of reaching out to people you have never met. I ended up talking with dozens of people in sectors like Samani and Tattapani (Hot Springs) and countless villages, along LOC, like Bandala, Natar, Buttal, Sehra, Kakutta, Manhole, Darra and so on. Almost all of these villages existed within 1-2 or kilometers, more or less, from the LOC. I asked very standard questions: Where were you when firing started? What time was it? What you did? What you heard? Any sounds of helicopters? Any loss in your area? Do Mujahideen cross from your area? I insisted on hearing what they knew from direct observations, personal knowledge.

Very interesting picture emerged. Firing started around 3am, some reported before 3am, some after 3am, but all thought it ended after 7am. Firing was intense, unstoppable, the kind of firing that used to happen before 2003 Ceasefire. Indian Army did not attack the villages, all firing was directed towards Pakistan army posts, right at the LOC; Pakistanis were firing back, it was intense, non-stop, frightening, but they are familiar with sounds, it was mostly machine gun, some mortars too. All sounds were focused around LOC, nothing behind it towards us, sounds, the noise never moved towards us, firing sounds were concentred there, so we were not afraid, firing happens, Did they hear any helicopters? No, not at all, they are familiar with helicopter sounds, these villages, these hills become so silent after 10pm, that a helicopter sound of its wings, from faraway  cannot be missed. Do Mujahideen go from here? your village? not any more. They used to, before 9/11. It was routine. Musharraf stopped that. Actually its not possible any more; before Indians started fencing, it was possible to cross over, not any more. Fencing in most places is double, with search lights, sensors, there are  land mines, and Indian army patrols. Who can cross? not possible.

In Bandala, I heard this interesting thing that not only Mujahideen used to cross over before 9/11 but Indian army commandos also used to come in, to do raids. Really? Yes, in one instance they – Black Cats – killed 22 people in one house. Who were they? Mujahideen. When was that? 1998, I am sure. In Tattapani some people insisted that there are dead bodies lying on LOC; how many? there are three bodies, no, there are six, no eight bodies; so have you personally seen them? No, but they are there, I have heard and Indians are not taking these away. But none of the person I spoke with could confirm seeing any bodies himself. Indian army can open up the doors or locks in fences and come this way. In Tattapani and some places fence is still not complete. I keep binoculars; we can see Indian patrols, its fun to watch at the other side of the border. Our army has many layers of bunkers and posts. Mostly Indian posts are on the hills. At places our soldiers are on on top. But many layers of soldiers and posts. Its not possible to come through, not easy, we would have known. Any dead bodies in the area? anything strange? are you leaving villages? No, why should we leave? everything is fine, firings happen, this is routine here, nothing new. Media is here, tv reporters keep coming. We watch Dunya News. Why media is so corrupt and so on.

After a day long exercise of talking, scratching memories, note taking and more talking I knew for sure that what Indian DGMO has described as ‘Surgical Strikes’ was merely a new impressive jargon for ‘Attempted Border Incursions’ – something that had been happening quietly ever since by both sides but never admitted. (For instance in late 1990’s and during 2002 – 2003 tensions). At its best it was an attempt to briefly penetrate border/LOC at multiple points, across LOC, over an area stretching more than 200 kilometers. The real difference was that ‘attempted border incursions across LOC’ were being admitted under the new name of ‘Surgical Strikes’.Surgical Strikes happened even in Manmohan time

And apparently, from multiple accounts, of totally unrelated people, in different localities, it looks – until some evidence emerges otherwise – that even if some attempts were made to penetrate, to cross inside Pakistani controlled territory then those attempts were not much of a success – in a physical or military sense. And achieving success in military terms in this terrain is difficult anyway. Then why do it? What was the purpose?

Though we know for sure – from various sources – that practice of militant entry across LOC has been abandoned since 2002, and there are no camps anywhere close to LOC. But even if we accept the Indian allegations that it is still happening, the very idea that in the prevailing regional tensions, after “Uri” dozens of ‘militants’ were about to cross over across LOC, at one time, in one night, over a stretch of more than 200 kilometers, all parked as stationary targets, like ducks, within 500 meters to 2 Km of LOC, and then Indians had such precise information about those ‘militant sleeping huts’ inside Pakistani territory that they could plan a multiple entry point synchronized attack, get timely approval from the top etc looks pretty far fetched to meet a real time scenario. So far the US – with its multiple technical advantages over the Indian military – have not demonstrated or claimed a similar efficiency; even good Hollywood movies show such operations as rather difficult – with hero, his best pal or girl friend dying – unless you are watching ‘Black Hawk Down’; this is not about bravery or ability to fire; its about organization, logistics, intelligence, data collection, decision making – and Indians being South Asians – lacking the US infrastructure – have limitations. But this much is easily understood, then why Indian army or the Modi government from the top did so much effort to attempt ‘few penetrations’ when at its best case scenario it could not have achieved much ‘in physical sense’ and in any case is something that kept happening, even before. What has been achieved?

Though it is getting obvious that what they did was an ‘Industrial Scale Natak’ (borrowing the term once used by Kajal Basu, Ex-Editor of Tehelka.com in another context) but what was the purpose? Have they achieved it? Answer is: Yes! they smartly created a real ‘Event’ on the ground; whether they could penetrate few meters or were rebuffed at the “ill-defined space of hills and ravines called LOC” whether there were any ‘militants’ or not, they have created an “Event on Ground’ to further strengthen the narrative — of Kashmir a terrorism problem, cross border militants, India under siege, democratic India capable of reacting is desperate to teach a lesson to Pakistanis but maintains restraint, Modi is different, decisive and bold — they are continuously spinning to encircle Pakistan.

No country – and Pakistan is not an exception – exists only in a physical sense within a defined longitude and latitude. Countries are nation states, organic entities, they exist with their geographical, political, cultural, educational, regional, psychological dimensions and networks that spread around them like tentacles or roots in all directions. Indian strategic community understands this much better than its Pakistani counterpart. Its fundamental goal is to undermine Pakistani state and society and to neutralize it – “Bogey of Terrorism” is the stick, they have used and are using everywhere from UN, to US Congress to Universities to media. If they have to create ‘Events on Ground” to further it, then so be it. After all the resolution moved by Ted Poe and Dana Rohrabacher has few takers, the Online petition to collect signatures to declare Pakistan a terrorist state will not lead to any concrete results. Persuading Nawaz Sharif to register a FIR on Pathankot Attack – knowing well that it won’t lead anywhere – is part of the overall ‘inch by inch strategy’. To conclude that Modi/Doval’s antics – which are only a more hawkish continuation of Indian Political Establishment’s overall strategy against Pakistan – are not going anywhere will only be a ‘concrete thinking’

If Indian political establishment, supported by its key intelligence institutions, is continuously spinning to isolate and undermine Pakistan in its broader context with the ultimate goal to neutralize it – like Bangladesh. Then on the other hand, whatever Pakistani institutions and agencies do or think is mostly in a reactive mode. And Pakistan has another big challenge:Civil Military Divide. Indian Establishment successfully capitalizes on Nawaz Sharif’s paranoid fears of his military, his desire to define all opposition in politics and media as extension of military to his supporters and to the world and Nawaz’s inability to understand the true nature of regional dynamics of South Asia in their historical context. Nawaz’s innocent beliefs – that his smiles, his sari diplomacy, his phone calls to Modi from hospital etc and postures of appeasement towards Delhi are replacements for a well thought out foreign policy- are huge gains of Modi and Doval. One should not be surprised if Indian Prime Minister’s Office has kept a separate “Laughter Room” where Modi and Doval collect together to crack jokes on Nawaz Sharif.

Apart from strengthening the old narrative of ‘India being victim of terrorism from Pakistan’ the ‘Industrial Scale Natak’ of Modi Sarkar is attempting few more gains:

One, Kashmir has totally disappeared from Indian, international and even Pakistani media as a political and humanitarian crisis. It has been replaced by the frightening and far more interesting specter of Indo-Pakistani tensions; cross border strikes, scrapping of Indus-Water treaty and need for India & Pakistan to deescalate etc.

Second,  Very interesting spin is being made that India has now successfully challenged Pakistan’s nuclear bluff and can operate in Pakistani territory under the nuclear threshold. Though as explained above, Indian army did nothing that could have warranted a response more than firing back, that was the only thing Pakistanis could have done but nevertheless now Indian Establishment has a narrative which is being anchored, drummed and multiplied with the help of a compliant media – that apparently has uncritically accepted the claims, without any critical scrutiny. If Indians became victims of their own propaganda and this encouraged greater room for adventurism – which may be needed because of situation in Kashmir and Indian state elections in few months – then we are looking towards dangerous instability in the region.

Third, Narendra Modi, the Hindutva hero, who has mostly failed to deliver in most of his promises of economic upturn has suddenly been branded a hero bigger than Indira Gandhi. This is a huge political victory for him,  few months before the scheduled state elections in UP, Punjab, Gujerat, Uttarakhand and Manipur. And Indian newspapers are full of this analysis. Modi gets back his Mojo, Surgical Strikes will benefit BJP in State Elections &  Surgical Strikes will reap Narendra Modi Rich Political Benefits – The Economic Times . It is understood that a few months before the state elections that will set the tempo for national elections of 2019, this can be a game changer. Face Saver for Modi?  But if Congress and other opposition parties started challenging him, Digvijaya Singh of Congress Terms Modi as War Monger – News 18  clarifying that what Modi has done was done before but quietly as per tactical needs, then Modi and BJP may come under pressure for more adventurism.

Pakistanis – unless they suffer from ‘Acute Complacentitis’ should not take any comfort in the fact that Indian military did not achieve anything in a physical sense, because their goal was never a ‘military success’. This “Industrial Scale Natak” was staged for reasons explained above. Pakistan needs a broad based holistic strategy to counter it and preserve its national interest. Understanding that Indian political establishment has mastered the art of ‘Event Creation’ to further their strategic narrative should be an essential part of Pakistani understanding. World may take longer or may not grasp it, but Pakistanis do not have the comfort of distance and they have to deal with whatever is being brewed. And rest assured, India will continue to do it, since western institutions are not prepared to scrutinize their claims – because of their own interests in the region. APC called by Nawaz government is only a show piece, another ‘usual natak’. Modi has meanwhile done one huge favor to Pakistan: he has allowed most Pakistanis to understand the meaning of Hindutva. Pakistanis are willy-nilly closing ranks, grasping that no normalization of relations with India will take place till this man is in power. Important that Pakistan should stop its usual offers of dialogue; it should just carefully observe what is being cooked inside Indian maze. How India and Pakistan will find peace? Can there be an entity or a cooperative framework, bigger than Hindutva’s Hindustan and Pakistan to provide a context to interact? Time is not ripe for this. But this in the long run is the only solution and this should be part of thinking of all those who aspire for sustainable peace in this region.

Moeed Pirzada is Lead Anchor & Editor Strategic Affairs for Dunya News; he studied International Relations at Columbia University, New York and Law at London School of Economics, he tweets at MoeedNj.The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy. This piece was first published in Moeed Pirzada’s official page. It has been reproduced with permission.

Moeed Hasan Pirzada is a Pakistani political commentator, geostrategic analyst, and a television news journalist. He is an anchor at Dunya News and hosts TV programs. He has interviewed many politicians around the world. Moeed Hassan Pirzada has also been a Director World Affairs and Content Head of PTV News and hosted the famous talk show Sochta Pakistan, a program that discussed national, regional, strategic, social and educational issues with politicians, analysts and policy makers. He has worked with Dunya News-TV channel as a Director World Affairs and hosted the current affairs talk show Dunya Today. He has written for Dubai-based regional paper Khaleej Times. His columns have appeared in major Pakistani papers such as Dawn, The News International, Daily Times, Friday Times and blogs. He has attended national and international conferences, seminars and policy workshops and had been a member of the Prime Minister's Education Task Force that collaborated with the British Council to produce the Next Generation Report. He has contributed policy papers to Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI) and also written several policy pieces for Pique Magazine. He is an Executive Director of Governance & Policy Advisors (GAPA) that provides consultancy services to the government institutions, development organizations and corporate bodies on issues related to media, governance, health policy, and regional peace.

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